By Dawne Belloise
By the time you read this, Ashley O’Hara will be packing up her desk at the Crested Butte Heritage Museum where she’s enjoyed her position as curator and collections manager since March of 2021. She’s heading to Flagstaff to attend Northern Arizona University to pursue a master’s degree in environmental and public history, a one-year program. “I really love the history of our public lands, mining history and the American West, so I hope I find a career where I can do research and write,” she says and adds, “Those are my favorite things to do, and to teach people about those subjects. Education is really important to me.”
Throughout her childhood, Ashley’s family moved quite a bit due to her dad’s employment, but she spent from fourth grade through high school in Suffield, Connecticut. Her family was outdoor-oriented and hiked around New England which Ashley didn’t appreciate at the time. Instead, she wondered, “Why aren’t we going to Disneyworld like all my friends?” In high school she ran cross country in the fall, track in the winter and played softball in the spring, graduating in 2003. “What I wanted to do throughout life has changed a lot. I remember being in Girl Scouts and having to dress up in what you wanted to be. I wanted to be a writer. I wore my mom’s leather vest, a white turtleneck, saddle shoes and I carried a notebook,” she confesses, but that goal changed for her.
Ashley enrolled in a small computer college in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, initially signing up for political science. During her first year in college, she was sexually assaulted, which caused her to leave that school. Dissuaded by investigators who told her she’d have to relive the trauma in a courtroom, she ended up not filing charges. “I felt like there wasn’t the support for rape victims as there is today. The investigators were nice but being honest as to what was going to happen in court.” She returned to school. “I tried to stay focused and went to therapy. It just wasn’t working.” Ashley decided to return home, not finishing the semester. She started partying. ”I think it was the way I coped. I wasn’t living in reality. I was trying to pretend that it didn’t happen. I was only 19 and I was trying to figure out what to do next.”
Ashley got a job as a snowboard instructor at a resort in Massachusetts close to home. “It was good for me even though it was an escape.” She had started snowboarding when she was in her middle school ski club and they’d go to Ski Sundown, which she did through high school. She also worked at a bank on weekdays.
In 2005, Ashley took a good hard look at her life. “I felt like I was partying too much, and my life was going down this dark road. I was still suffering,” she says. She had read stories and seen photos of Colorado as a child, and she always wanted to come to the mountains. Even when she was still in high school, she told her father that she wanted to be a ski bum and he replied, “That’s not a real job.” Nevertheless, Ashley moved to Copper Mountain in November of 2005 after uploading her resume to every ski resort in the state and finally getting hired. She tells about her first drive up, leaving the warm, dry Denver climate, passing through the Eisenhower Tunnel into Summit County and into a raging blizzard. “It was puking snow,” she laughs.
It was her first season in the mountains, and she was a snowboard instructor while working at a ski shop and falling deeply in love with Colorado. Even though the plan was for her to return home after ski season, she quickly realized, “I knew I was never going back to the east coast.” Ashley took a job in Frisco as a preschool teacher, where she worked from 2010 through 2017. The school paid for some of her classes at Colorado Mountain College where she spent several years completing her associate degree in early childhood education because she was working full time.
Ashley moved to Idaho in 2013 after a long-term relationship and engagement ended, and her former fiancé took his life. They had still been very close even after they called off the engagement. “I was really close to not only him but still close to his family,” she says. She was hired as a preschool teacher in Boise, which she felt was a good opportunity to heal, reflect and rediscover who she was. She prioritized finishing her education and chose to return to Colorado Mountain College for a bachelor’s degree, moving back to Dillon.
Ashley was hired at a Lake Dillon preschool and took classes sporadically at Colorado Mountain College. She felt the need to engage in humanitarian service, so in 2016 she volunteered at an orphanage in Kathmandu, Nepal. “It was not easy to be over there, but I wanted to help in any way I could. It was my way of giving back.” She worked at the orphanage in the morning as a teacher and in the afternoon, she’d tutor high school girls. “It showed me how lucky we are to live here and how people can be happy with nothing. I gathered more compassion for less fortunate people.”
While in Nepal, Ashley realized she couldn’t get her degree if she was working full time. She applied to Western Colorado University and moved to Crested Butte in July of 2018. “And this is where everything fell into place,” she smiles. She was originally going to school for education, but in her first semester she took a Latin-American history class as an elective with Dr. Heather Thiessen-Reily. It changed her path and focus. Ashley’s professor influenced her to switch to a history discipline. “I changed to public history with a minor in anthropology. It felt exactly where I was meant to be, and I loved it.” She graduated in 2021 with honors.
She had already landed a job with the National Parks Service when her friend called to tell her that the CB Mountain Heritage Museum was looking for a curator. Ashley had done her internship there. “I didn’t know if I’d like being in an office but after speaking to them, I realized it wasn’t just a desk job. I graduated on a Saturday and started full-time work on Monday.”
One of her projects manifested in a museum exhibit. “It was my ranching project. I spent a year-and-a-half interviewing ranchers. I went with Duane Vandenbusche, who knows many of the ranchers. We interviewed about 16 ranch families all over Gunnison County from Powderhorn to CB.” The museum exhibit is entitled Ditches and Fences: the history of ranching in the Gunnison Country. Ashley gathered long-time ranching women at the Almont Resort to hear their stories, from familiar valley names like Guerrieri, Means, Yeoman, Rozman, Spann and more. Their oral histories were recorded, she says. “I learned the history through their stories and now it’s all at the museum to be preserved and shared.”
Ashley says that working at the museum has given her a more complete perspective of how CB was in the 1970s and ‘80s. “A lot of things changed then. The streets got paved, street lights went up, more people moved here. It’s given me a really deep appreciation that I was able to be part of this community, even if it was only for a short time because yes, I love the mountains, but it really is the community I’ll remember. I think the best part about being in CB is meeting the people here, learning where they came from, what they loved, hated, why they stayed in CB—just who they are, our old-timers and mid-timers, and people who just got here. I think they all make CB incredibly unique, eccentric, exciting and it’s my favorite place that I’ve ever lived in my entire life. I’ve never felt so connected to any community.”
Ashley feels, “I’m really open to what the universe holds for me. I know that I’ve been through a lot in my life, especially in my 20’s, but I really don’t want those things to define me because I don’t feel connected to that trauma like I used to. I don’t think my past defines who I am now. I don’t feel like a victim anymore. I really love my life and the people that I’ve surrounded myself with and the places I go. I hope Crested Butte is in my future but if not, it’s definitely going to be one of the favorite chapters in my life.”